Sometimes, everything seems to be on fire. Literally, as with the fires in Australia, Brazil and California, but also figuratively, with the global pandemic, climate change and violent conflicts everywhere. Who, or what, will save us from all of this?
Option 1: Technology
The idea is simple: With future technology, we may be able to maintain our first-world lifestyle, expand it even, while avoiding the long list of negative externalities this lifestyle so far causes.
To a certain degree this is definitely true, particularly when it comes to energy generation and resource extraction. Unfortunately, technology also exponentially increases our destructive potential, for example. through weapons of war.
The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) may have saved us during the cold war, but it may not do so in the future – especially in the realm of cyber warfare. Ultimately, technology does hold a lot of potential. But this potential goes in every direction, and so it doesn’t hold up as a savior to count on.
Option 2: Economics
The core claim of capitalism is that if we leave the economy alone, everything will sort itself out. People will only buy what they believe in, so only good products and companies survive while the bad ones disappear. This is 100% true.
But this does not mean that it can save us from the challenges of our time. While growth and wealth creation are powerful factors in preventing conflicts and increasing well-being, the question is: How do we define “good”?
To most of us, “good” means convenient, without any regard for negative externalities that do not affect us with absolute immediacy – also because there is simply no time to exhaustively research everything we buy.
But even if we try to include social, ecological, and other factors in our purchasing decisions, the absence of regulations enforces moral hazard. I say ”enforce”, because higher standards are expensive, and if there is no requirement to abide by them then doing so anyway will diminish a market player’s competitive advantage and simply push that player out of the market. Especially if that player could simply lie instead.
So, regulations are needed for economics to be a viable solution, but for these rules to be effective they need to be established outside of economics itself – which means economics cannot be the answer.
Option 3: Politics
Politics gets a bad rep these days, and for good reason. But it is important to remember that politics is what we do to find a consensus in society on every level. Politics decide who gets power, where resources are invested and which direction we develop in.
At its best, politics makes sure that all interest groups are represented according to their significance and ensures that no part of society gets marginalized.
So far, democracy has proven to be the best way to achieve this type of politics. The only caveat here is that a functioning democracy requires transparency, education, and a functioning social system.
Transparency ensures all the information is out there, through education people are empowered to make informed choices and with a functioning social system, people are less susceptible to situations where they need to vote against their best interest.
But since no democracy is perfect, it is always under threat of populism, tribalism and a ton of other “-isms”. Because of this, politics always seems to turn into a race to the bottom eventually.
Option 4: Personal growth
All these options have the same root: Individuals.
Individuals come up with technology, build the economy and establish social systems and hierarchies. What do these individuals want? What are their goals and agendas and where do they come from?
To be fair, there are two types of individuals in this world. One is the type who is mainly concerned with survival, every day. Whether in slums or conflict zones around the world, most of us belong in this category.
The second type includes individuals like me, who have no reason to worry about survival and are thus free to spend their days worrying about different things. It is this type of individuals who decide how things go in the world. It is this type, whose desires shape the direction of technology, society, and the economy.
What do we do with that power? I say, we have a duty to use this power to look at ourselves. Who really are we? What do we really want? Only by doing this can we see through the superficialities of power and wealth, overcome our default settings as sophisticated apes and continue to evolve with, rather than against, life in the universe.
It is not easy, of course. There are millions of possible answers to these questions. Personal growth means not simply copying one of these answers, but finding our own – and saving ourselves in doing so.
As a note to end on, this is why Micah and I are doing what we do. The retreats, the tiny house, the online course I’ve had in my head for a while now – they are our answers to these questions. It just so happens that they include the ambition to hopefully inspire others to find their answers, too.